Parables, fairy tales and fables play an important role in teaching children how to navigate and survive (and eventually become part of) the adult world. Of course, the best ones have plenty to offer adults, as well. Tito and the Birds, a stunningly unique and beautiful animated gem, deftly and lovingly constructs such a universally relatable parable about how fear, especially fear of the “other,” can paralyze the community and prevent it from enjoying even the most basic aspects of life, even as those in power who spread that fear thrive.
At a time when fascism and authoritarianism are on the rise, I can’t think of a better and more relevant theme for such a modern cautionary tale. That doesn’t mean that Tito and the Birds is just a dry, didactic feature-length lesson on how people should cope with their fears for a better society. (That’s the cherry on top.) With its giddy and hypnotic mix of oil painting backgrounds and digital animation in service of a wonderfully inventive story surrounded by kooky, immediately lovable characters, Tito and the Birds is also one of the most original animated works of the year.
Our hero is the brave and rebellious science nerd, Tito, who wholeheartedly supports his scientist father’s controversial invention, a machine that allows humans to once again communicate with birds. The father’s theory is that throughout human history, birds warned people about upcoming disasters. People’s connection to nature facilitated this bond, but as people got lost in their own tech and media bubble, that connection was lost. After the invention’s initial failure, the father leaves to perfect it without distraction. Meanwhile, a mysterious disease appears that turns people into sentient rocks.
The virus is activated by crippling, irrational fear, mostly peddled by a Fox News type media figure/billionaire businessman, who not so subtly looks like a 40-something Trump, to keep the people afraid of immigrants, subversives and any “others.” His ultimate goal is selling houses in a new city protected by a dome where nothing, including animals and nature, can penetrate. The allegory of fear literally turning people into inert rocks is not only visually inventive, but also thematically potent and powerful. Such an existence might guarantee survival, but is it any kind of living? In order to save his community from this outbreak of fear mongering, Tito and his plucky group of friends task themselves with finishing his father’s invention and finding a cure through humankind’s now lost relationship with nature. Not an easy task with the media mogul’s army of robots behind them. (Side note, the design of the robots—stick figures with iPad heads—is a genius application of modern-day cyberpunk aesthetic.) Where the story goes from there, with boundless creativity that manages to reference Cronenberg’s The Fly and Pixar’s Up in the same project, I’ll leave to the audience to discover.
It’s extremely easy to fall in love with the visuals of Tito and the Birds. The application of oil painting backgrounds communicates the creative energy of Tito and his friends. These paintings frequently burst out of their predetermined lines as the animation progresses and crash with other colors to create a vibrant palette. Add to this the refreshing lack of strict, realistic lines in design and the adoption, instead, of an angular, expressionistic approach, and Tito and the Birds becomes one of those rare animated films that evokes the POV of a child without coming across as gimmicky and condescending. (My biggest regret here was having to watch it on an online screener and not the big screen, where I imagine its dream-like beauty would truly shine.)
Tito and the Birds is a Brazilian production. I don’t know if the rising tide of fascism and fear mongering during the making of the film influenced its course. Animated projects, especially more independent ones like this, take years to conceive, design and produce. The themes of the film are timeless and universal enough that such a direct comparison to the contemporary world isn’t particularly necessary. Yet the timing of its release, as Brazil has just elected a far-right president, is almost serendipitous in the way that it can work as a gripping piece of art reminding its people to never wallow in fear. Delivered via breathtaking family adventure, it’s a lesson for all ages, and all time.
Directors: Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, Andre Catoto
Writers: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg
Starring: Matheus Nachtergaele, Denise Fraga, Mateus Solano, Otávio Augusto, Pedro Henrique
Release Date: A while, yet
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.